During our Washington Heights survey, we found shelves full of cheap, ready-to-eat packaged products—plenty of empty calories within reach, physically and financially. Of course, children are easy targets. But so are their parents, some of whom might be dashing between two or three jobs, grabbing whatever they can find (and afford) to quickly feed their families. Busy reporters sometimes forget that there are myriad reasons people rely on fast food as dietary mainstay, another reason context is missing from some diet-related stories.

What’s also missing is stories about what some cities and public health experts, not waiting around for legislative “fixes” to the food-desert problems, are doing in the meantime. Little has been written lately about New York City’s “Healthy Bodega” Initiative, for example, which launched in 2005. Its aim was to convince bodega owners to stock healthier options, such as low-fat milk and fruits and vegetables, by convincing them that there is demand for such products The city armed neighborhood residents with fairly sophisticated campaign materials and asked them to make their pleas one-on-one with local store owners. A 2010 report suggests the program was beginning to work. A progress (and fiscal) update is way overdue.

Similar “corner store” efforts are underway in many cities around the country, either going it alone or with the support of organizations such as the Healthy Corner Store Network. There have been nice profiles on such efforts through the years, although none I could find recently.

In the context of today’s hyped-up legal and legislative battles about soda bans and the like—in which the term “civil liberties” is thrown around—it’s good to remember that these fights are not just about the press conference personalities and courtroom dramas. They are about the secret lives of people in neighborhoods where the best options for dinner might be a $1.29-box of mac and cheese or a $3 head of slimy lettuce.

Take a walk there and you’ll see.


Sibyl Shalo Wilmont covers healthcare policy issues for The Second Opinion, part of CJR’s politics and policy desk, the United States Project. Follow the project’s work on Twitter @USProjectCJR and follow her @nursesibyl.

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Sibyl Shalo Wilmont is a healthcare journalist and emergency department nurse with insider experience in the pharmaceutical industry, academic medicine, and patient advocacy. She is a graduate student in Hunter College's dual-degree Master's in Community/Public Health Nursing/Master's in Public Health program. Follow her on Twitter @nursesibyl.